Skillets - I'm confused

"Pans made of cast iron are typically called skillets, whereas their non-stick, aluminium or stainless steel counterparts are usually referred to as frypans. Skillets are also slightly deeper with higher walls."

Kitchen Warehouse


Well the above statement seems to be a pretty conclusive answer but dig a little deeper and the definition gets more and more confusing.


It's cooking class day and my granddaughters have chosen a recipe that they found online on the Recipe Tin Eats site. I try to make sure that they are ready with all the equipment and ingredients they need to hand and so yesterday I skimmed the recipe to see if there were likely to be any problems.


I say skimmed, because I didn't pay much attention to actually what phrase was used when referring to the pot we would need - it's a one pot recipe after all - and so I just concentrated on the method which included a period of cooking rice in a pot. I therefore sort of assumed something deep - a casserole or saucepan kind of thing. And really I only paid attention to the fact that it had to be finished under the grill so would need to be able to resist high heat from above.


What are we making? Well it's called One pot chicken enchilada casserole and I guess you could say it's a sort of paella. The enchilada part is just the sauce, by the way, not the tortillas that are usually used to enclose a filling. It looks pretty nice, and it's pretty easy, so very suitable for our lesson.


And I obviously should have paid attention to the picture - the headline one which is shown at left, to see what kind of dish I needed. Not really what you would call a casserole is it? More what I would call a sauté pan. Indeed one definition I found said that a sauté pan has straight sides and a skillet has sloping ones and looks much like a frying pan. This pan has almost straight sides and is quite deep - not like a frying pan. Surely a frying pan is never really deep? These definitions are always stated with such certainty that for a moment you believe them, and then you read a different one and you start to wonder. I mean now that I think of it some pans called frying pans are actually quite deep and almost a sauté pan to my mind.


But the Recipe Tin Eats lady - a Japanese Australian - described her dish as a skillet. I was slightly taken aback, because to me a skillet is an American term, and one I am never quite certain about. I don't think I ever heard it used in England and I'm not sure it's often used here either. Maybe it's creeping into the Australian vocabulary. So I decided to look into it.


Which, as I said, just led to further confusion really. I mean there is a world of difference about the definition at the top of the page, which concentrates on the material, not the shape, and the one that concentrates on the shape. And let me tell you there are many others that are variations on both of those themes. Carbon steel anyone? Perhaps I shouldn't worry and just see if I have anything that fits the bill according to the recipe picture. And I don't quite.


I have deepish frying pans but not deep enough I think. I also have a beautiful cast iron sauté pan which is deeper than the frying pans but not quite deep enough - ditto for a stainless steel version of the same thing. So I think I'll be using what I call a sauté pan although I worry that it is too big, in the sense of wide, for this particular dish for just two of us. So maybe I need to make the full recipe. Maybe I need to buy yet another new pot. One like this one. It looks pretty much perfect, though expensive and maybe a bit too big. Elegantly beautiful though.


And did I mention the one handle or two thing? Nearly all of the so-called skillets that I found being advertised had one long handle or longish - some looked a bit short to me - like a frying pan, as does the one the Recipe Tin Eats lady is using, but I'm not sure that this really matters either. My cast iron pan has two handles and the stainless steel sauté pan is the same. I must admit I tend to think that pans with one long handle are frying pans. Is that the crunch decider?

And where does a wok fit into all of that? Or a proper paella pan or a kadhai?


Personally I think you need two or three different sized frying pans ranging from really quite small for pancakes, to quite large, but not very deep, and two or three sauté type pans of varying widths. Well hopefully I won't always be just cooking for two. Hopefully I shall be able to cook for more eventually. And personally I think that the term skillet is just an American term for sauté pan, and that's what I'm going to stick to.


And I know it's not the same thing at all but my current desktop picture is this:

I adore these pots that you find in every French market. I suspect that many of them are made in various south-east Asian sweatshops these days, but they are indeed so French. I have just two - one given to me by my mother decades ago and another I purchased myself. Indeed that one is just the right size for today's dish but I don't have an asbestos mat - do they even still exist? - and it won't heat on an induction cooktop. I don't have more because they are heavy and my suitcases are always full, so buying one would take me over my weight limit. It's a tragedy. I should have bought lots when I was young and then I could have just brought them with me when I emigrated to Australia. Elizabeth David, of course, is a fan:


"Earthenware casseroles and terrines for oven cooking should be in every household; ... with time these rustic clay pots acquire not only a patina but an aroma of their own, which in the course of long patient simmering communicates itself to cassoulets, chou farçis and civets, which would lose something of their flavour and a good deal of their charm if cooked in an ordinary saucepan." Elizabeth David


She's right about the patina - the one my mother bought me definitely has that. It's not a skillet though, either in shape or material.

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